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Why drought is not the cause of famine in the Horn of Africa

Over 12 million people are at risk of death and starvation in the Horn of Africa. Even if they do not perish, young children are likely to suffer the life-long impacts of malnutrition, including poor brain development. While reactions of grave concern and shock over this unfolding tragedy are natural, its causes are not. Most commentators cite the worst droughts since the 1950s, and security concerns in southern Somalia, as the main reasons for the crisis. Taken alone, these explanations are deeply flawed.

While drought and insecurity are certainly contributing to the current crisis, there are more fundamental causes at play. Drought is not a new environmental condition for much of Africa, but a recurring one. The Horn of Africa, and the entire Sahelian region of the continent, have long experienced erratic rainfall. While climate change may be exacerbating rainfall variability, traditional livelihoods in the region are adapted to deal with situations where rainfall is not dependable.

The dominant livelihood in the Horn of Africa has long been herding, as it is better adapted to the semi-arid conditions of the region. Herders traditionally ranged widely across the landscape in search of better pasture, focusing on different areas depending on meteorological conditions. The approach worked because, unlike fenced in pastures in North America, it was incredibly flexible and well adapted to variable rainfall conditions. As farming has expanded, including large scale commercial farms in some instances, the routes of herders have become more concentrated, more vulnerable to drought, and more detrimental to the landscape. Large land leases (or “land grabs”) to foreign governments in Ethiopia have further exacerbated this problem.

From grain storage to emphasis on cash crops
Agricultural livelihoods have also evolved in problematic ways. In anticipation of poor rainfall years, farming households and communities historically stored surplus crop production in granaries. Sadly this traditional strategy for mitigating the risk of drought was undermined from the colonial period moving forward as households were encouraged (if not coerced by taxation) to grow cash crops for the market and store less and less excess grain for potential bad years. This increasing market orientation was also encouraged by development banks.

The moral of the story is that famine is not a natural consequence of drought (just as death from exposure is not the inherent result of a cold winter), but it is the structure of human society which often determines who is affected and to what degree.

While the nations of the world must take immediate steps to address the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa by ensuring the prompt delivery and distribution of food aid, these same countries must also consider the underlying causes of the crisis as they work for longer term solutions. Many commentators, including the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, have spoken about the need for a strategy to rebuild food security in the region.

An energy-intensive approach
The problem is that USAID’s plan for agricultural development in Africa has stressed a “New Green Revolution” approach involving improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. While this energy-intensive approach may make sense in some contexts, it is financially out of reach of the poorest of poor farmers who are the most likely to face food shortfalls.

A more realistic approach would down play imported seeds and commercial agriculture in favor of enhanced traditional approaches to produce food for the family and local markets.

Ethiopia, a key recipient of U.S. aid in the Horn of Africa region, should also be strongly discouraged from granting long-term leases of its farm land to foreign entities when it struggles to feed its own people in poor rainfall years.

High food prices
Finally, the crisis in the Horn of Africa has been aggravated by an international environment of high food prices. Global food prices reached a historic high in February of this year, surpassing the spikes of 2007-2008 (which were then the highest in 20 years). While the current prices are in part related to bad weather, other significant factors are high energy prices, increasing use of grain for biofuels, and export restrictions.

With energy and food prices likely to remain high for the foreseeable future, Africa can no longer count on cheap imported food or afford to shift to energy intensive crop production strategies. The solution lies in improving time-tested local approaches, which are attuned to local environmental conditions.

William G. Moseley is a professor of geography and African studies at Macalester College in St. Paul. He previously worked for Save the Children (UK) on food security issues in Africa. A version of this article appeared in the Washington Post.

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